Here's what the Army wants out of its Futures Command HQ

As Raleigh and four other cities wait to hear which of them will become the host of a new U.S. Army headquarters, the service's top civilian is telling people it's important to keep their eyes on a much bigger prize.

The site selection "is not the important thing" compared to the need to give the Army's modernization "unity of command" by setting up the Army Futures Command, Army Secretary Mark Esper said at a Brookings Institution forum.

The headquarters should help avoid repeats of some of the service's previous procurement snafus, he argues.

"We can continue to work within the current system and we can tweak around the margins and my guess is, we'll probably end up with similar problems," Esper said during the early June forum. "Or we can do something very different."

The site search itself continues, with a final decision about the winning city now due in mid-July. Along with Raleigh, the finalists are Austin, Boston, Minneapolis and Philadelphia. Army Undersecretary Ryan McCarthy and Army Futures task force commander Lt. Gen. Eric Wesley are visiting each of the cities, following up on recent scouting by a "ground team" that looked for office space.

Army leaders see all five cities as good choices, Futures Command spokesman Col. Patrick Seiber said.

In his June 5 talk at the Brookings forum, Esper stressed that the Army wants a location close to academia and industry because a headquarters that has to "envision the future" and then find solutions needs scientists, engineers and theorists "at our fingertips."

"You're not going to get that at a traditional troop post," he said, adding that a "good quality of life" for the headquarters staff is also a factor.

But Esper spent most of his time making the case for why and what the Army needs to modernize, building on comments a number of senior generals and civilian analysts made during a three-day "global force symposium" in late March.

The essential problem is that in the almost 17 years since 9/11, the Army has focused mostly on fighting guerillas and terrorists, a job that for all the strain it puts on infantry doesn't necessarily require the latest and greatest in hardware.

But the Department of Defense's "national defense strategy" argues for "increased and sustained investment" and that job, pretty much by definition, is hardware-intensive.

It's also driving the Army's six big modernization priorities, starting with a call for longer-range artillery and missiles.

The driver there is that Russia has good artillery of its own, and a lot of it, plus an anti-aircraft network in eastern Europe that would make it difficult for the Army to get the kind of air support it's accustomed to having. Without it, the Army will need weapons that can hit from farther away, said Gen. Robert Brown, commander of the U.S. Army Pacific.

"We need cannons that fire as far as rockets today, Brown said at the March conference, which took place in Alabama. "We need rockets that fire as far as today's missiles. And we need missiles out to 499 kilometers and beyond. And I realize there's [arms-control] treaty obligations beyond that, but we need to push beyond that. "

Esper told the Brookings audience that "long-range precision fires" are the Army's top modernization priority because it also needs "the ability to support our sister services," whether by knocking down opposition air defenses to clear the way for the U.S. Air Force, or by helping "open up the door" for the U.S. Navy to "gain access to a certain theater.

The second big need, as Army leaders see it, is to come up with a "next-generation combat vehicle" to replace existing ones like the M2 Bradley Fighting Vehicle and the M1A1 and M1A2 main battle tanks.

Those vehicles "are not optimized for the environment" the Army likely would have to operate in, said Gen. Robert Abrams, chief of U.S. Army Forces Command, the service's training arm headquartered at Fort Bragg.

Moreover, Army leaders think there are some critical technologies that would be too costly to incorporate into current combat vehicles, Abrams said, naming robotics, better electrical-generation systems, advanced armor and so-called "directed energy" weapons among the possibilities.

The Army ideally wants vehicles that weigh less, so they're easier to ship to a war zone, and that need less maintenance and fewer supplies than the current generation. Among other things, that means "reduced fuel consumption, if we use fuel at all, and common repair parts," Abrams said.

And they must be "optimized for fighting and operating in urban environments," he said at the March conference.

The service is trying to develop two vehicles, one designed from the start for robotic operations and the other a "manned fighting vehicle" that would have enough robotics and remote-control gear on board that it would be the "commander's call as to when to operate manned or unmanned," said Brig. Gen. David Lesperance, who's heading a team assigned to spur work on prototypes.

Lesperance's team, like others working on the moderization priorities, will report to Army Futures Command, which actually becomes operational on Sunday, July 1. The headquarters staff will work out of temporary offices in Crystal City, Virginia, near the Pentagon, until the Army picks a city for it and renovates enough office space there for elements of the staff to begin moving in, Seiber said.

Lesperance said there is a future for new fighting vehicles and tanks that is similar to the way the Air Force uses drones.

"Imagine making contact with the enemy with an unmanned robot and allowing a decision-maker to understand quicker and to make a better decision out of contact [with the enemy], then move to a position of advantage to deliver decisive lethality in a way we do not do now in 100-percent manned platforms," he said.

The Army similarly is looking to upgrade its helicopters along with its air and missile defenses and computer networks.

But as combat ultimately requires troops, the Army is looking to improve them too, whether by finding replacements for the M249 light machine gun and the M4 carbine, or by acquiring more virtual-reality simulators soldiers can use in training.

Maj. Gen. Maria Gervais said the Army wants to capitalize on the advances coming out of the VR and game industries, but along the way is facing software problems.

For example, it needs terrain models of the entire world that use a common file format, in place of the 57 formats it has to deal with now, she said.

It's consulting with industry groups monthly, not just for advice on the technical ins and outs of the project but to learn how game companies estimate and track their software-development costs, she said.

Esper, talking to the Brookings audience, stressed that Army Futures Command and its development teams are going to try to work with industry to encourage experimentation and the rapid creation of prototypes.

"Will we suffer big failures like we did in the past?" he said, alluding to an earlier new-vehicle program called Future Combat Systems. "I don't believe so because we are willing to suffer little failures. And that is the way we're approaching this now. Let's work with industry, be more open, let them put their dollars on the table. We'll put in some dollars. Let's prototype. If we're going to [fail], let's fail early. Let's fail cheap and learn from that."

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg
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